Prabowo’s Indonesia?


Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto is set to make his mark in the general election to be held in the middle of February. Many analysts and observers see him as beating his two rivals for the presidency, former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and former Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo.

In spite of his controversial past in the military, General Prabowo has reinvented himself as an avuncular leader who combines nationalism, populism and charisma in a way to appeal to Indonesians across the demographic spectrum.

Within that spectrum, accounts of his rise to contemporary prominence highlight young Indonesians’ ignorance of his military past. With more than 100 million Indonesians under the age of 40 registered for the polls, he has a chance of outbidding his rivals for the millennial vote given his commanding personality leavened by cultivated charm.

It remains to be seen whether Prabowo will win outright in the first round of the presidential election or whether the polls will go into a run-off in which the two best-performing candidates take on each other. However, hardly anyone expects Prabowo to be eliminated in the first round. He is the candidate to beat, and there appears to be no one able to do so.

In these circumstances, it is not idle to wonder what Indonesia would look like under the rule of the politically-reborn Prabowo Subianto. Some might fear that a Prabowo presidency would herald an effectual return, in actual state practice if not in declared government policy, to the autocratic days of Suharto, the dictator (and Prabowo’s father-inlaw) whose New Order regime depoliticised Indonesia and allowed the military to oversee the national future.

That is highly unlikely. Indonesia’s democratisation since Suharto’s overthrow in 1998, amidst the Asian Financial Crisis, has become such a fact of everyday political life that it is impossible for anyone to lead Indonesia back to its dark days. It also is unnecessary for Prabowo since he needs the winds of democratisation under his presidential wings precisely in order to realise his national vision.

Indonesia cannot be run on presidential edict: The democratic turn in the people’s consciousness has put paid to the top-down past. Institutionally, regional decentralisation has consolidated itself as a major achievement of post-Suharto politics. It simply cannot be the case that Jakarta will be able to pull the administrative strings and provincial puppets will play along. This is why the two ex-provincial governors have come so far in the presidential race. Also, political parties have sustained their momentum in the decades since Suharto’s downfall. Golkar, once the preferred vehicle for the military’s political role, now shares real democratic space with a host of other parties large and small, including Gerindra, Prabowo’s own party. Gerindra could not have existed in Suharto’s times.

Now, Prabowo wishes to recreate Indonesia in Suharto’s modernising image but without the political constraints that the former dictator imposed on the evolution of the national polity. Prabowo is both Suharto Plus and Suharto Minus, almost in equal measure. Add the two features, and you are left with Prabowo himself. His appearance on the political scene is an act in itself.

The issue lies in the denouement: where he intends to lead his country.

A modernising agenda

Prabowo’s strategy for national transformation is geared to taking Indonesia to 2045 — the first centenary of independence. The year 2045 being more than two decades away, his programmes are clearly intended to set in place a framework for national development that would transform the Indonesian social ethic and place it on a trajectory that could make the nation the world’s fourth or fifth most prosperous country by 2045. Within this modernising framework, he envisions national income growing by at least 6% – 7% every year, with the goal of Indonesia becoming a high-income country. The nativist impulse in this goal is revealed by his insistence that national resources be processed within Indonesia instead of remaining cheap exports. Significant research and development funding will go into securing self-sufficiency.

On the fiscal side, a higher tax rate would generate government revenues substantially, allowing it to attend to structural deficits in society. A strong auditing system would be part of institutional reforms aimed at ensuring accountability. Economic equity, environmental sustainability, and higher educational standards in schools would act as the template of a new Indonesia. Freedom of speech and opinion, those basic units of human rights, would be celebrated — but limited by the state’s rejection of any individual’s or community’s hatred of other religions, races and tribes.

As manifestos go, Prabowo’s vision for Indonesia combines ambition and realism. His time-frame, which extends to 2045, suggests that he seeks to inaugurate an era of national transformation that exceeds any period in office that he can conceivably hold. His reach exceeds his grasp, and is meant to do so. His ambition is to unleash the Indonesian capacity for evolutionary change: Realistically, he accepts that he will be only a catalyst in that process of change.

It is one thing to promise and another to deliver. Prabowo’s realism is underwritten, however, by attention to policy fundamentals. Their fiscal aspect suggests an emphasis on revenue generation which, if realised, would yield resources necessary for changing economic gears.

Of course, changing tax rates is easy but eradicating corruption is not. It is endemic, and it would take a whole-of-government approach to root it out. The financial interests of almost all major players in the Indonesian economy involve at least some degree of culpability in the perpetuation of corruption that has long been taken for granted. Breaking a popular mindset moulded by the immanence of corruption, collusion and nepotism — the infructuous popular fight against which brought down Suharto — will not be easy at all. Perhaps that is one of Suharto’s enduring legacies.

Changing the domestic front will be difficult. But the foreign front may prove to be easier.

Indonesia abroad

If elected, Prabowo would inherit a sturdy foreign policy tradition which — in spite of the serious aberration represented by the Konfrontasi (Confrontation) that Sukarno waged against Malaysia and Singapore in the 1960s — defines Indonesia’s crucial role in Asean and its broader presence in global affairs through its membership of the Group of 20 forum of major advanced and emerging economies.

The essentially secular conduct of foreign policy by Indonesia, home to the largest number of Muslims in the world, is a source of comfort on a global terrain scarred by identity politics. That politics culminates in the pursuit of religious/political goals by theocratic states emboldened by their demographic and economic power and their capacity to fund terrorist groups that further their national interests.

Indonesia could not be more different. Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country and economy, provides a key plank as well of the Indo-Pacific region, where the US and China are vying for strategic dominance. Southeast Asian security is unimaginable without taking into account Indonesia’s interests and contributions.

With power comes responsibility. Ever since Suharto, Indonesia has established itself as a force for moderation in the conduct of foreign policy. Sukarno’s Indonesia wanted to be feared: Today’s Indonesia wants to be liked. Consider this transition as an exercise in soft power.

The erstwhile image of Indonesia as a dissatisfied and revanchist nation does not keep the midnight oil burning in chanceries in Southeast Asia or elsewhere. Instead, regional capitals look to Jakarta as a stabilising force in Asean precisely as Southeast Asia’s unity and cogency are challenged by extraregional forces whose rivalries could tear the region apart. Indonesia does not need to impress its indispensability in the conduct of regional affairs on anyone: Its status is understood, acknowledged and indeed welcomed.

This is the legacy that Prabowo would inherit if he were to win. As a politician who seeks to appeal to both the nationalist and Muslim segments of the Indonesian electoral ground, he could be tempted to pursue an assertive foreign policy as a way of registering his special agency in the trajectory of Indonesian power.

However, he is too intelligent to fall into the Bonapartist trap that Sukarno did. Instead, he would do well to emulate Suharto — only in this regard, and not in the domestic arena — as a statesman who is remembered to this day as the president who made Indonesia great by making it normal. Suharto turned Indonesia into an underpinning part of the comity of Asean.

Prabowo’s assured regional ambit does not require adventurism: All he has to do is to follow his instinctive understanding of Indonesia’s role in the world and enhance it through domestic economic and social policies that secure the great archipelago from within.

The writer is founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award-winning journalist and a graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. This article reflects the writer’s personal views

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